I love Snake oil, it goes good on fries.
My agent once told me that any book on writing, no matter what had one good idea in it. The question was, were you willing to spend the twenty five bucks or so to find out what that idea is? The resounding answer based on the large number of books and programs to help along the aspiring or established author would point to a resounding, “Yes.”
I would offer that there are even books out there that offer far more than just one idea but they in my eyes tend to be more about structure than about just one aspect of writing.
I just recently picked up a book about writing outlines. Why? Well I’ve always had a hard time doing it. Mostly because each story I work on tends to need a different style of outline. I don’t know why this is, it’s just been my experience and it’s directly related to how my head is wired. So I’m always open to a better way to do things.
See I operate from a story coming out of a single scene and then like a clump of cells, it grows from there getting bigger and more complex until you see it start to be come an arm, a leg, or an entire creature. But for me that main scene is what I write for and why I write to get to it and then as new scenes pop up in my process, I want to write to them as well. So my outlining process looks pretty messy. I’ll have scene notes tacked up on my corkboard (virtual or real) related to those core moments I want to hit. It takes a few weeks to filter it all through.
Now the handy thing for me, is coming from film, I’m used to getting the ABC of the story out and if you want a crash course in mythic structure as related to western storytelling, film is a great place to learn and because film can be so lucrative (ha bloody ha) there’s a ton of books about the craft and the why of it. Most are complete shit which hasn’t stopped their authors from making a ton of money off of them but then books on how to win at Blackjack are really popular too I hear.
But back to the book I got on outlining. I’m working my way through it and frankly as a tool for me? Not so much. I also disagree with the author’s central premise because it’s based on the work of a Hollywood writer / script doctor who’s approach just drives me nuts. So that’s a miss for me. I’m not slagging the book, it might work for somebody else, it just doesn’t work for me.
It does however lean towards the most human concept of a ‘secret’ way to success. Part of this I’m sure is linked to how our brains are always looking for patterns. Which is not a bad thing. Lot’s of discoveries have come out of hours of observation and putting two and two together, of course this need to make sense of things has also led to some pretty wild conspiracy theories. Of course, patterns aside, sometimes shit just happens. I my mind, the only secret to having that breakout book or script is hard work, a good story, a decent platform to get it into people’s hands and a bit of luck. Never underestimate luck, good or bad.
Still, because I come from film I prefer to work in traditional three act structure. Of course you can space this out a bit more for a book. At it’s core, essentially, it’s setup – conflict – payoff. Obviously the setup and the payoff are the shortest points of that statement. Where the real magic happens is in the conflict section.
If you want to break it down into numbers, roughly 25% is dedicated to the first act, fifty percent to the second act and twenty five percent to the third act. In the first act, you’ve got your characters (all of them, at least the ones who matter even the bad ones) the world they live in and its rules and the setup or event that propels everything forward. In the second act, you’ve got the rising tension towards the midpoint of the story, which is an event that will turn everything ninety degrees towards the second to third act transition that will be the ultimate climax or the event that turns the story one more time towards its ultimate conclusion be it good or bad. The third act will deal with the aftermath or the return journey with their spoils or knowledge. Chris Vogler, covers this much better in his The Writer’s Journey or you can go to his source material, The Hero has a Thousand faces.
As usual, for me it all boils down to this. Write a good story, you believe in as best you can. If you keep doing that, who knows what you’ll achieve. But always be wary of Snake oil salesmen and the true value of that one good idea.